Her shadow fell across the table as she set the letter down. She splayed her hands across it, leaning down and pinning it to the flat surface as though it might rise and walk away; she closed her eyes and fought whatever emotion was trying to crawl out her throat. It was late afternoon, in a world that was light and soft; a perfectly ironic spring day. She knew what the letter was, even without opening it – and yet she stared at it, and willed it not to be. Not now, not when it seemed they had beaten all of their enemies and brought all of their little family well and truly home at last. The sounds of the others filled the air; arguing and laughing and working and living.
She felt dead, by comparison.
Slowly, she sank down before the table. She broke the seal, opened it; the symbol inside was exactly what she had expected. And exactly what she had hoped never to see again, at least not on paper. It was burned into her shoulder, blazoned into her soul; whether or not this had come, it was a part of her and she a part of it. The only difference was, now it was calling her. The only change was that she would have to answer.
You didn't get a second chance when you made a deal with the Devil.
Kaoru sighed, and folded the paper. She got out another sheet, and the ink, and began writing a list of what she would need. Writing it in code, that is. That initial training, so many years ago, would have been hard to recall, if it weren't for the occasional letters between the friends – no, sisters – she had met in that place and time. A sort of code no one would expect from a woman, from her, though she certainly wouldn't be leaving the page where anyone could find it.
Clothes, some journey food, a little of her saved cash. A good excuse to leave for her friends, that would keep them from following or worrying. A new training schedule. A way to train up her strength that they wouldn't notice. A way to hide the changes that would come in the weeks before she had to leave. Letters, in case she didn't come back. Someone to leave the letters with –
Kaoru stared at the paper. Who could she trust with such a thing? It had to be someone who would let her leave – but who cared enough to look after her loved ones for her. And there was so much more to do than she could do herself! And she would need to be able to exchange letters with friends, letters that, code or no, would reveal far more than she wanted her friends to know. There would be packages, too; after all, her current supply wouldn't last… as long as needed.
Twelve weeks. It was short, it was long; it was a breath of time, and the rest of this life.
Kaoru sank her head into her hands, and tried to weep for the pain of it. The tears wouldn't come.
It was better that way. Better that no one could know or guess. Kenshin, at least, was far too perceptive for her to get away with bawling unnoticed. Though she wished she could talk to him. Wished, more than anything, she could let him comfort her. Oh, if only she could tell him, talk to him! But no, he would want a different solution. He would not let her go – or he would go with her. And she couldn't have that.
No, that would be impossible. And leaving, after that, would break one or the other of them – or both.
Her hand fisted on the list, crinkling it within her palm. She could feel the tickle of ink against her skin, then she balled the paper and held it up before her, staring at it. It just wasn't fair. Why couldn't this have come a few years ago, before Kenshin wandered into her life and she had friends and a certain joy to her days? Or why not when Kenshin had left for Kyoto, and she had lost all sense of purpose? She threw the wadded paper with all the force she could muster, and it smacked into the wall and bounced, solidly, flying most of the way back towards her.
She glared at it, where it had landed. And then sighed – flinging bits of paper wouldn't solve anything. It was hardly the papers' fault what she'd written on it.
Kaoru stared at her hands, at the ink, at fresh paper – but couldn't bring herself to combine the three into a new list. She needed time to think, time away from everyone where she could consider how to do these things. Someone she could talk to that, if she let some vague reference slip, it wouldn't matter. Someone who wasn't close enough to really care what she was saying, but who would listen anyhow.
Kaoru smiled slightly. Perhaps dinner out was a good idea.
She slipped the letter off the table, tucking it into her clothes where it wouldn't be noticed. She left the list, for now. Some part of her spirit was daring one of the others to find it, to question her about it. But though they might find it, they wouldn't suspect a thing from it, except perhaps that she'd taken to writing strange lists of chores and groceries. They wouldn't ask about it, unless it was to see if she wanted those things bought, or those chores done.
Kenshin watched Kaoru walk out the gate without taking notice of almost anything. His small effort at remaining unnoticed was entirely wasted. Frowning, he slipped from the shadow of the tree; while he'd done his best to keep her and the others feeling safe, he hadn't always managed it. He knew they had changed, that they were more wary and observant than they'd been before his coming – but just then, she'd wandered right past him without even looking around, much less noticing anything.
And it wasn't like her at all to leave, without telling someone. Without telling him.
Kenshin walked slowly towards the house, to the room he'd been watching her in. There'd been a letter, of that much he was certain. A threat, perhaps, by the way she'd taken it – only, he'd like to think she would have brought a threat to him. No – he was sure she would have brought a threat to him, and it wouldn't have had her walking around in a daze, at any rate; she'd have been on edge, nervous. There'd been a strain, a sort of hurt confusion in her – but no panic, not even surprise or shock.
So the note had been expected, at least a little.
Kenshin sighed, as he stared at the empty room. There was really a great deal he didn't know about Kaoru, about any of his friends. He didn't ask because he didn't really want them asking in return – some parts of his life he wanted to leave assigned to the person he'd once been, safely hidden away beside the amber eyes and the intent to kill. But his friends weren't supposed to have mysterious pasts creeping up to send them letters – that was his life.
He knelt and scooped up the crinkled paper Kaoru had thrown. He flattened it, frowning at the smudged writing. He'd known it wasn't the letter, watched her writing it herself – but he hadn't expected this. He stared at it unseeing, as confused as he could ever remember being.
Why would a grocery list matter so much? And a few household chores – was there some event, perhaps, she had to prepare for? Some guest coming into town she didn't like? He sighed – that was likely. Some relative she had never mentioned, coming for a visit she didn't want. As innocuous as the list before him.
Still, even as he tucked the list away and moved to clean out a spare room, a tiny sliver of fear wormed its way into his heart, and took residence. He couldn't ignore the feeling that he was missing something.
Kaoru stared into the saucer of sake. It wasn't like her to drink so much, but she felt an overwhelming need for it, tonight. She was hoping it would steal her away, leaving her silly and happy – but her mood tempered it too much. She was simply … drifting.
Which was better than the alternative, perhaps. Though she couldn't drink much more, or the others would surely notice when she returned home. She flinched at that – there was little chance of them not noticing. Not when she'd left without telling anyone. Frowning, she glared at the sake, and downed it. She'd have to do better than this. And she'd have to come up with an excuse, a good one, soon.
The evening was a resounding failure, anyhow. Tae hadn't been the confidant she'd needed, which she would have realized if she'd taken a thought for half a second. Oh, sure, the woman would listen to her rant about her troubles, but ranting in generalizations wasn't the least bit satisfying. And, what's more, those same generalizations seemed to have caught the woman's attention – where telling the whole story outright would have probably slipped by unnoticed.
The sake seemed to take away some of the strength of that nameless feeling tugging at her throat, but it seemed to add burning to her eyes, making her want to cry out her troubles. She was awfully tempted to give in to it; it would solve at least some of her problems, after all. But she couldn't cry – not now, and not until this whole thing was done with.
Though that would… be easier, soon. Much easier than now. And it would stay that way… probably forever.
Kaoru shuddered, and downed the last of the sake she'd ordered for herself.
"You have been called, then." Came an aged voice. "And you haven't told them."
Kaoru closed her eyes, and set the saucer down. "Sir?" She questioned, uncertain if she were still sober enough to say anything more without slurring – or giving anything away.
"No need to pretend, my girl. I'm not yet so old as to have forgotten. And if that tattoo of yours weren't enough reminder, a certain tall, clumsy friend of yours dropped by this afternoon."
"Rinako-chan!" Kaoru exclaimed, drawn out of her half-drunken misery. "Gensai sensei, she is here?"
"Indeed. Takagi Rinako received a letter yesterday, and arrived to my office late this afternoon with quite the story to tell. She is looking for a place to stay, my dear, as well as somewhere to train. Which would solve more than one of your problems, if I'm not mistaken."
Dr Gensai laughed. "I've been here a little while, my dear. And while Tae might not know what you're prattling on about, I have no such disadvantage."
Kaoru felt herself blushing. To have said so much in a public forum, where anyone could hear -"Gomen, Gensai-san. I have been quite foolish this evening."
"No, no, my dear; you're quite fine. I only understood because I already knew your meaning before you gave it words. Now, Takagi-san will stay at my home tonight, and you will return to your friends letting them know that an old friend is in town. You will come and pick her up tomorrow morning, first thing, and so we will have the chance to work out a cover story before they have the chance to ask questions."
Kaoru half-smiled. "It will have to be quite the story, sir, to convince my friends that nothing was wrong when I have drunk myself silly. Especially if I have also to give them a reason for her continued stay, and all that will come in the future."
"There's already a perfectly good cover story for the last part, my dear. I will tell you about it tomorrow. Now, as for tonight: how much do your friends know of the time after your father died?"
"I – very little. Well… nothing, really, except that I was assistant master, and continued to teach my fathers' style."
He shifted back, surprised. "Have they never asked?"
"The past is a sensitive subject for them, as well, Gensai sensei."
"Well, then, the solution is easy. Tell them that your friend is coming, and tell them that you met her when your father died, and that your memories of her are tied up in some very painful memories surrounding his death."
Kaoru looked at him, eyes shining. "Oh, thank you, Gensai sensei!"
He laughed. "I am glad that the truth is enough in this case. Although –" He trailed off.
"You should consider telling them something of the truth, if it weighs so heavily on your soul, Kaoru-chan."
"I cannot! You know I am sworn to it."
Dr Gensai shook his head. "No, Kaoru, not all of your friends. But you are only sworn from letting it become known. There is no reason not to tell some – or perhaps one – that weighs on your heart most of all. He, at least, would understand, my dear."
She blushed, looking at her hands. "He is the one I can least tell."
"You have far too little faith in your Rurouni, Kaoru. He would not desert you."
"And perhaps that would be the worst possibility of all! He might try to keep me from going." She looked up at him. "I have played my part too well, Gensai sensei. I am a little girl to them."
"You are a little girl, Kaoru-chan, whatever is in your past or your future." He held up a hand to forestall her protest, "However, I know what you are saying; I will let this lie for tonight. Get home, ease their minds, and get some sleep. Enjoy the rest while you have it, my dear."
"Hai. Arigato, Gensai sensei."
Kaoru rolled to the balls of her feet and stood, moving to slip from the room. A hand on her arm stopped her. "Have you stopped taking the inhibitor, yet?"
Kaoru sighed, and it seemed to come from the depths of her soul. Her good mood fell, though only a little; she stared into the hall, unwilling to look at the doctor. It would be easier for both of them, if she didn't. "Hai, sensei."
"Come to my office in a week, and we will decide if you are ready enough to begin."
"Arigato." She said, then hesitated. There was so much more to say, to discuss…
But then she let it go, shoving that thought from her mind, pulling the other parts of her happiness to herself. She fixed a smile, and a moment later it didn't even feel fixed, as she found herself slipping from the room gracefully enough. Her head and heart were far clearer and lighter than they had been all day, regardless of the amount of alcohol she had consumed. She stopped long enough to pay her tab – taking fierce satisfaction in the fact that money, at least, would be changing for the better – and sent herself out into the cool summers' night. She walked slowly, enjoying the night. There would be few enough of these that she could claim for her own.
And anyhow, it had been terribly long since she'd been able to walk a street alone at night without any worry for her safety. She fixed her gaze on the heavens, extending her senses around her. A half-dozen inches, no more, such a limited ability – but enough that she could stare at the constellations without stopping her walk. Even at that, it only worked because all she had to avoid were trees and large ruts in the road. She pressed at the bounds of her sense of space, but couldn't feel any change; no matter, such would likely come later. Kaoru smiled up into the sky.
Yes, there would be good changes, too. She let out a carefree laugh, and spun about. She added a half-skip to her step, the most she could manage in a kimono, and grinned up at the shining lights of the night. Dr Gensai was right; she was still a girl. But so? Was it so wrong to enjoy the wonderful moments of the universe? The way she saw it, age was only an excuse; she would rather anything than to surrender these wonderful moments of freedom. If growing old caused that, she wanted no part of it – not even for the sake of romance, not even to show up Megumi. Maybe not even for…
Well, yes, there was Kenshin. Kaoru let out a sigh; for him she'd be as old and boring as anything – though perhaps she only said that because she knew he'd never want it. But then, it might well be that he'd never want her. Which might only mean that she was, or acted, far too young for him.
Kaoru frowned. Such a puzzle. Not that it mattered. In the next days and weeks, she'd make sure he saw her as a friend, and nothing else. It would be a terrible goal to pursue him romantically; a much better one would be to put romantic notions out of his head, and the best of all would be to solidify their friendship.
His friendship meant everything to her. The rest of it – well, she could do without, if need be. Who knew how such things would turn out? But for certain, she couldn't lose Kenshin's friendship. Nothing in the world was worth that risk, not even this oath.
A small fire seemed to burn in her, at that. Perhaps, when this was over, she would be able to –
A figure dropped from a tree in front of her. He was soundless, and she was staring at the heavens - she felt it, and he must've been six feet away. Something in her burned, it was excitement, it was so many things. She felt another join him. She felt, as well, a sudden rush of hostile intent, as though it were heat she could see or light she could hear or a sound she could feel. The burning became a fire, and she snapped her head up.
The fire within her roared in her ears.